The hunt: preparing my tenure-track application

This is the second in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position.  Rather, the series is highlighting the steps I took, starting with my postdoc search. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

So you’ve been a postdoc for about 2-3 years, and gotten one or two solid publications out the door (maybe more, depending on your field). You’ve taken ownership of your project, established a small network in your field, and figured out where the lab first aid kit is located. Your life, in and out of the lab, is somewhat settled, and you finally feel comfortable in your postdoctoral skin. And then it hits you – postdoc positions aren’t permanent. Whether or not you think you’re ready to run your own lab, it’s high time to start envisioning your future research program – the basis of a tenure-track job application.

There are 5 main components to the TT job application – cover letter, CV, research statement, teaching statement, and letters of recommendation – each of which takes time to develop. Even if you don’t plan to send a single job app out for another year, you better start getting your shit together. Why? Because getting a tenure-track job requires more than publications. You need to develop a plan for your research, funding, trainees, personnel and (at some institutions) teaching. And believe it or not, some parts of your plan are actionable RIGHT NOW. So what did I do?

First, I updated my CV (really, you should be working on this all along), and had several individuals in my department and field take a look. You can find lots of advice out there on how to organize your CV, but I found it most useful to talk to faculty who had served on TT search committees in my field. On my CV, I listed my education, research experience, awards, grants, teaching experience, invited talks, society memberships, and service (committees I served on during my postdoc). I made my publications easy to find (I put them on the last page, because everyone I talked to said they flipped immediately to the last page to find the publication list), and organized them into categories: peer-reviewed articles first, reviews next. I included a submitted paper during my first round of job applications, but I never listed manuscripts in preparation. Also not making the cut: my childhood babysitting experience, the certificate I got for perfect attendance in Sunday School, and my ability to make a damn-good tomato-based pasta sauce. Keeping my CV up-to-date helped immensely when I was ready to submit grants, one of the next steps in getting myself ready to apply for jobs.

Identifying a transitional source of funding was a good way for me to get my shit together, even before I was ready to send out apps. Fairly soon after my first paper got accepted, I started working on a K grant, which was submitted shortly before I started applying for jobs. I didn’t end up securing that funding until the end of my second round of searching, but the writing and revising of that grant (including the career development section) did wonders for getting my research plan organized. For my first round of TT job apps, I used an abbreviated version of my specific aims page as the core of my research statement, with additional information on how this plan could transition into a couple of related projects. I also briefly stated how I planned to get funding for each of the projects (K, R01, private foundation grants, etc). As my job search wore on, my research statement evolved and improved. I still don’t know just how much of an impact my statement had on the search committees, but it definitely served as a crucial jumping-off point for me during subsequent steps in the job search process. Second to my cover letter (discussed below), this document received perhaps the greatest amount of my attention during my two years on the job market.

Next, I generated a standard cover letter with virtually no first paragraph, a second paragraph on my research accomplishments, a third paragraph summarizing my future research interests, and a short fourth paragraph with my (fairly limited) teaching experience. I left the first paragraph blank so that I wouldn’t accidentally send a cover letter to University of Alaska in response to their ad for a position in ice fishing research with a reference to University of Hawaii about their position for research on surf boards – I mean, can you imagine the embarrassment??? Instead, I wrote a unique first paragraph for each job application I sent, stating briefly why I was interested in the position and why they should be interested in ME!! It took a little longer, but there were no embarrassing cases of mistaken identity – especially impressive considering I was in labor when I sent out the bulk of my job applications last year. My research paragraphs highlighted my contributions to the field, the fact that I had (depending on when I sent the app) submitted, resubmitted, been scored, or secured a K grant, and what types of funding I would pursue once landing a position. My teaching paragraph, although small, conveyed that I did have some experience and that I was excited about educating grad/medical/undergrad students.

Once ads for TT positions started to appear, I contacted my references (my current mentor, my grad mentor, my collaborator, and my chair)*, informed them I was beginning to apply for jobs, asked them if they would be able and willing to send letters, and provided them with the first set of ads and due dates for the applications I would be sending out. From that point on, whenever I saw a position I wanted to apply for, I sent an email with the job description and the due date (if there was one given) to each of my referees**. Then I customized my application materials for the prospective position, proofread the materials a gazillion times, and applied. During the first round of my search, I restricted myself to a fairly narrow scope of positions, applying only for those that fit into some vision of my dream job that was stuck in my head. For the second round, I applied for everything. And I mean EVERYTHING, so long as Hubby could see himself possibly finding a job nearby. Good thing, too – the job I have now is not exactly what I had envisioned for myself a few years ago, but it’s turned out to be a better fit than I could have imagined.

The teaching statement is the last thing I will discuss here, because it is literally the last thing that I thought about when getting my application package together. Only one job I applied for during my first round asked for a teaching statement. By the time my second round began, about half the positions, even those with heavy research demands and light teaching loads, were asking for teaching statements. It’s noteworthy that a teaching statement is not necessarily the same as a teaching philosophy. Sure, I talked about my teaching philosophy, but only in the context of my experience, which was the basis for my teaching statement. I summarized my teaching experience from undergraduate and beyond, briefly noting what I learned about educating students at each step. At the end of my statement, I identified specific courses I was qualified to teach that were already being offered in the department’s graduate (and undergraduate, if applicable) programs. I also briefly described a single course, not currently offered but complementary to their current curriculum, that I could develop once my lab was up and running.

So that’s what I did. I’m sure others did lots of things differently, and I’m sure there are lots of opinions on what’s right or wrong. Please share your experiences and thoughts. Next time, I’ll be talking about the job interview.

*Most jobs only asked for 3 letters, but some asked for 4. I only had sent the number that was asked for in the ad.

**Remember – faculty get requests for recommendation letters all the time. They don’t mind sending them out, as long as they know it’s for a good reason. Just be sure to ask them what they need from you (updated CV, possibly your research statement and cover letter, information on the grants you’re applying for, etc) and be sure to provide them with pertinent information about the position (advertisement, due dates, contact name if one was provided).

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The hunt: finding a postdoc

This is the first in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position.  Rather, the series will highlight the steps I took, starting with my postdoc search. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

The site of a young scientist’s postdoctoral work says a lot about their training and potential. Thus choosing the *right* postdoc may be the most important step you’ll take in obtaining a faculty position. However, a good pedigree indicates much more than a big-wig PI and multiple glamor mag publications. Pedigree is dependent on a number of training environment characteristics. When starting my own postdoc search, grad mentor had me consider the following questions about prospective labs:

  1. What is the publication trend of the lab?
  2. Where are the lab’s former postocs?
  3. What is the reputation of the lab and PI?
  4. Does the PI provide opportunities for training away from the bench?

I started my search by making a list of PIs whose science I enjoyed reading about, then took a closer look at the publication history of these PIs, examining the rate, impact level of the journals, and authorship on each paper. Because I wanted to pursue the TT, I needed to find a lab where I could take the lead on and eventually take away my own project. Thus, I narrowed my list down to labs with solid publication records and at least a few papers with only 2 or 3 authors. This latter characteristic indicated (to me and grad mentor) that lab members were given more autonomy over their projects.

I next took a look at the labs’ previous postdocs, since this can indicate how *good* a mentor is at advancing his/her trainees into a specific career. Since my chosen field was academia, I whittled my list down to PIs who had turned out at least a few TT and tenured profs. My grad mentor additionally advised against some of the junior profs I originally included, since an unproven track record in this arena could have complicated my TT prospects.

Next, I talked to my mentor and others in my grad department about the names on my list. What did they think of their science? What did they think of their trainees? What did they think of the person? This was probably the MOST enlightening aspect of my decision-making process, and it possibly saved me from a hellish postdoc with a jerk difficult mentor. However, I wouldn’t take one person’s negative comment to heart, especially if I was really in love with the lab’s science. I suggest checking things out for yourself (if you score an interview), and keep your antennas up for anything that seems off.

After preparing and researching my list of prospects, I was ready to send out my applications. I excessively proof-read then snail-mailed hard copies of my cover letter and CV to each of the PIs on my final list. Simultaneously, my mentor mailed a recommendation letter to each of the PIs. In my cover letter, I included a short reminder of who I was (if I had previously met them) and a summary of my research, inquired about specific projects I was interested in working on, and provided an expected graduation date.

A few months later, I was on interviews. I took advantage of my one-on-one time with each of the PIs to find out what they had to say about training opportunities away from the bench (teaching, grant-writing, meetings, etc), and inquire if they were willing to let me take a project with me when I left. If it was clear what I would be working on, I specifically asked about the portability of the project. When away from the PI*, I felt out the personalities of the lab members. How much did they work? How much did they enjoy their work? Did they appear to have social lives? Or could they only talk about science? Most importantly, I observed how the lab got along with each other, how they interacted with their mentor, and how comfortable I felt talking with them and the PI.

Luckily, I was offered a job during my interview with the PI who was my top choice before, during and after the visit. I felt comfortable with the PI, enjoyed hanging out with the lab members, and fell in love with Postdoc Town. Within months of joining the lab, I took control of the project I had been reading about for several years prior. I published, established myself as the department expert in Field X and Technique A, secured my own funding, and initiated my own collaborations. It wasn’t the perfect postdoc, and I had plenty of frustrations along the way. But it was as good as (and maybe even better than) I needed it to be.

*Not given time away from the PI? This is a HUGE red flag. Run, don’t walk, away.

Next up in the series: putting together my TT application package.

Some final thoughts on grants, big-wig universities, and competition

A comment left by Gerty has helped clarify what was truly bothering me about the myth that nobody is getting tenure-track jobs at big med schools without money. The original impetus for last week’s posts was a series of comments from IRL and blogosphere faculty, stating it was incredibly rare for junior faculty to land tenure-track jobs at top-tier (top 20, even top 50) biomedical institutions without money. I myself have learned of a few specific scenarios in which search committees can’t even consider individuals without 2+ R01s (in an open rank search), all but eliminating any chance for a brand-spankin’ new assistant prof candidate. This is undoubtedly frustrating for someone trying to find a tenure-track position with *merely* a K grant to bring to the table, but I’ve still been able to get plenty of traction in other searches. Something bigger was getting stuck in my craw.

Gerty’s last comment reminded me of that something:

This is a culture issue. In some places, the dept. works hard to make sure that the junior faculty they hire will be successful. In other places, assistant professors are a dime a dozen. There are some places where more than 1 asst prof will be hired for one tenure line. In these places you are given a little bit of lab space and expected to find a way to win (of course, more lose than win). Just know what culture you are entering before you start. The only thing you can do is try to know what the expectations are.

This sounds eerily familiar to a close call I had while applying for postdoc positions (years ago). One of the big-wig PIs I considered was [evidently] notorious for putting several postdocs on the same project – the winning postdoc earned papers, approval from the PI, and tenure-track glory; the losers left academia or found a second/third postdoc to try and earn their stripes. Instead, I ended up postdocing with a PI who is well-known and respected as a mentor, and actually (*gasp*) cared about my future from the moment I walked in the door. He made the decision back then to invest in me, and has heartily supported my efforts to publish, secure grants, and land a TT position.

You see, there are two types of  pedigrees out there for the TT-aspiring scientist. One requires working your ass off with little to no support from your PI and in heavy competition with your labmates. The other is available by working [your ass off] with great mentors who are respected in their field and actually invest in their students and postdocs. I chose the latter of these scenarios, and wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m sure there are many out there who thrive on the competitive energy provided by the former environment, but there are some for whom the pressure produces a plethora of less than desirable results.*

The same can likely be said for junior faculty in these types of high-pressure environments. Some researchers undoubtedly do very well in this setting. At these institutions, the newly-minted assistant prof finds herself in competition for a single tenured position with 5 other competent scientists, all vying for the same pot of NIH monies in a tough, tough funding climate. They understand their career may ultimately be dependent on chance rather than skill, but also enjoy the intensity, fighting for grants and publications with every fiber in their being, ultimately winning the tenure race. Others don’t do as well. If lucky, they transfer their program to a less intense environment, or they leave academia all together. Some buckle under the pressure.*

While appreciating the intensity that is inherent in academic science, I myself prefer to find a place that’s personally invested in me, my research program, my future students/postdocs. It’s how I was *raised* as a scientist, and this model has served me well for many, many years. I’m guessing faculty in these environments work just as hard as those at high-intensity universities; the nature of our funding systems requires it. In many cases though, the majority of their paycheck is provided by the institution rather than their own grants, so they have a safety net when federal funding gets ugly, an important quality even after acquiring tenure. Tenure requirements are also much more clear-cut at many of these institutions – teach, do your service, make yourself known, publish, and secure funding**.

So, like Gerty said, it’s all about knowing what to expect; I just don’t understand the model where faculty (or grad students, postdocs) are subjected to insanely intense competition to succeed. I’ve always been expected to work hard and get my shit done, but I’ve found clearly-defined goals best kept me motivated to move forward. Nothing is ever for sure, but I need some sort of assurance that I’m not working my ass off for nothing.

Of course, I’m sure there are a few out there reading this who themselves work as faculty in an environment such as this and can provide much more insight into what the expectations and pressure are like. I (and probably others who frequent this blog) would be interested in hearing why you chose this environment, if you did your grad studies and postdoc in a similar environment, and whether you’d change your decision based on what you now know (after all, isn’t hindsight 20/20?). In case it’s not clear, I’m really, seriously not judging; I just believe understanding more about the environment and expectations of some of these institutions may help  others out there in their quest for tenure-track positions and, ultimately, tenured success.

*This can manifest itself in several ways, but most notably (but certainly not always), it can involve some level of scientific misconduct.

**Number 1 goal is ALWAYS securing funding, but everything else on that list (maybe aside from teaching, maybe) should help achieve this goal.

Repost – What’s a pedigree good for?

Some discussion regarding the decision to train or not to train in the lab of an assistant professor (read: not-yet-tenured) caught my attention on the Tweets yesterday. BenchFly has a poll up on this matter (with the cutest picture of a little kid in a labcoat), but the poll (and post) don’t take into consideration the career goals or stage of the trainee…which are both incredibly important factors to take into consideration. So, of course, I had to weigh in.

The likelihood that an assistant professor will be a good mentor is probably similar to the likelihood of a tenured associate or full professor to be a good mentor. BUT, if you want to pursue a tenure-track position yourself, I would highly recommend looking into more established investigators for your postdoctoral training. For one, the track record of the PI is incredibly important when considering their ability to boost you into a TT career, and young PIs don’t have a track record to analyze. Second, a young PI may not have the ability to grant a TT-aspiring postdoc the necessary freedom to develop their own independent project or (*gulp*) take a developed project away. I sure as hell won’t be in this position for years to come – maybe ever.

Somewhat related, I wrote a post last summer on the importance of pedigree in an academic career, and I thought it fitting to re-post for those considering postdoc positions. Continue reading